Book Title Angst — Guest Susan Van Kirk

Welcome back, Susan Van Kirk. Life is interesting — since I met Susan a couple of years ago we found out that she taught one of my high school classmate’s children. I love small world connections.

marryinhastefrontSusan: I’m always intrigued by the cleverness of book titles because I go through torture and agony trying to come up with mine. Somehow it comforts me to remember that even F. Scott Fitzgerald had trouble naming The Great Gatsby.

I’m now the author of three Endurance mysteries and an e-book novella featuring Endurance detective, TJ Sweeney. Still, figuring out a title for the first mystery about the town of Endurance was an excruciating experience back in 2012. It disturbed my sleep and interfered with my brain during every minute of my waking and sleeping hours.

I played bridge and thought of titles (no answers, but I think it helped my bridge game to be distracted.) I paced the kitchen floor and thought of titles. I watched the presidential returns—and thought of titles. I talked to my children, who live two thousand miles away, and who wondered why I was so distracted.

You get the picture.

When I began writing A Silent Place to Die (my working title), I believed it would be a cozy mystery. One of my readers questioned why my title was so gruesome. On further thought, it sounded very un-cozy, even to me.

nobribes_cmyk_300dpiWhat to do? What to do?…

I explored titles from other book series. Maybe they would help me. Rescue animals are featured by Linda O. Johnston in Hounds Abound, The More the Terrier, or Beaglemania. The culinary titles of Diane Mott Davidson (Catering to Nobody, Dying for Chocolate, Chopping Spree) sound wonderful, but my main character doesn’t have a dog and is a terrible cook.

Sheila Connolly’s orchard series uses apples in her titles since her main character owns an apple orchard. Very nice. Julie Hyzy’s manor house mysteries—with a main character named “Grace”—have “Grace” in every title: Grace Under Pressure or Grace Among Thieves. My main character is also a “Grace,” and it would be so easy to connect her name with various ideas in my titles—you know, Amazing Grace.  But no, Hyzy got there first.

So, I put myself into Grace Kimball’s shoes, and I recalled pieces of literature by American writers that my fictional Grace would have taught at Endurance High School. The books in her library are by her old favs: Fitzgerald, Poe, Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow, and others.

Then I remembered.

threemaykeepasecretfrontBen Franklin. He was an original, discussed in many American Literature classes throughout the nation, and a favorite of my Grace. Like Julia Spencer-Fleming’s titles from Christianity, Ben Franklin’s aphorisms are part of American culture and thinking. Here, you finish his thoughts:

“A penny saved is…”

“God helps those…”

“Early to bed and early to rise…”

Maybe I was on to something.

How about “Three may keep a secret…”? Would you automatically finish that with “…if two of them are dead”? Oh, Ben Franklin, you are so clever! My town of Endurance hides dark secrets, and often they lead to murder. Three May Keep a Secret. I had my first title.

allenhouse300dpi3The second book in my series, Marry in Haste, was just published. Thank you again, Mr. Franklin. Marry in Haste is the story of two marriages, a century apart, both sharing a terrible secret. When Grace’s boyfriend, Jeff Maitlin, buys a huge mansion and borrows money from a bank, he sets off a chain of events that put Grace in danger. I based Jeff’s house on a Victorian I lived in when I first moved to Monmouth, Illinois. Built in 1885, it had over 4,400 square feet of living space. It became my fictional Lockwood House.

One of Grace’s former students, Emily Folger, is arrested for her banker husband’s murder, Grace cannot believe it. As she sets out to prove Emily’s innocence, Grace finds the 1893 diary of Olivia Lockwood hidden in Jeff’s house. Olivia, a naïve 17-year-old, marries the powerful Judge Lockwood. She is dazzled by his mansion, and despite the 26-year difference in their ages (as well as rumors about the death of Lockwood’s first wife), Olivia is sure they will be happy. However, as Ben Franklin wrote, “Marry in haste, repent at leisure.” Both Olivia and Emily should have listened to him.

Ben Franklin has not disappointed me. The last book in my series will be out in May, and its title is Death Takes No Bribes. Although she is retired, Grace Kimball goes back to her old school when the principal is murdered. Who would kill such a good man? Now she must face the possibility that one of her former colleagues is a murderer.

cover-for-novellaMy e-book novella is titled The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney. I didn’t feel bad about leaving out Ben’s wisdom on this title since it features TJ Sweeney rather than Grace. However, its premise is like the other Endurance mysteries since Detective Sweeney investigates a murder from the 1940s when the big bands came through Endurance and played at the Roof Garden. Dancing in the moonlight … romance in the air … and murder in the shadows.

I still haven’t found a way to use Franklin’s “Lie down with dogs, Rise up with fleas,” or “A countryman between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats.” Still thinking …

Readers: Do you have a favorite book title? Writers: Easy or hard to come up with titles?

susanSusan Van Kirk grew up in Galesburg, Illinois, and received degrees from Knox College and the University of Illinois. She taught high school English for thirty-four years, then spent an additional ten years teaching at Monmouth College. Her first Endurance mystery novel, Three May Keep a Secret, was published in 2014 by Five Star Publishing/Cengage.  In April, 2016, she published an Endurance e-book novella titled The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney. Her third Endurance novel, Death Takes No Bribes, will follow Marry in Haste. Contact Susan: Website and blog: Facebook: Twitter: GoodReads:




27 Thoughts

  1. What a fun post, Susan! I love the aphorism angle. I’m terrible at coming up with punny titles for cozies, so I outsource them to the Guppies or even on Facebook. A childhood friend I haven’t seen in decades came up with Farmed and Dangerous for me. For a new series I wanted to do foodie names riffing on great literature titles: Crimini and Punishment, The Sole Also Rises, and so on, but haven’t pulled that off yet. Best of luck with the new Endurance.

  2. Thanks Wickeds…I put the first title on my library list, and only three in the series? Maybe another series by this author???

    1. Well, Gram, long story short. I am one of the many mystery authors whose series is published by Five Star/Cengage. They recently dropped all of their mysteries. So I am currently writing a new series and ending the first one. Onward and upward. Besides the three novels, I also wrote an e-book novella about my Endurance detective. So it’s a good start! My characters are not happy about this either. They hoped to live a lot longer.

  3. I feel your pain! Titles are so hard, and I can’t start writing a book until I have something I can call it, even though I know the title may not survive the editor’s review. (I think three of mine have made it to a book cover–not a great record.) Puns can be hard to come up with, if you don’t have a comic mind (although punny titles do help readers remember the title). And some of my puns are too obscure for people to get: My 2016 County Cork book, A Turn for the Bad, is an inside joke because it revolves around drug smuggling by boat, and “bad” is the Irish word for boat. (P.S. Love that Victorian house!)

    1. Thanks, Sheila. I love your books. I used your first apple orchard book to learn about plotting before I ever started writing. Thank you. I did a two-part historical column about that house in our local newspaper, and I also posted about it on Jungle Red and on the current Mystery Magazine website. It was a grand old 1885 house, and, unfortunately, it was razed in 1990. But it lives on in my book. I think I will use your suggestion and name my WIP, even if the name eventually changes.

    1. And thank you, Sherry, for having me on. I’m planning on heading in the Quad Cities direction–your old stomping grounds–to promote my books. Love reading your blog–it’s the highlight of my morning.

    1. Thanks, Kimberly. If you love big old Victorian houses from the 19th century and lots and lots of secrets, Marry in Haste is perfect for you.

  4. Titles are the bane of my existence. I often write an entire book as “book 1” or “book 2” and it’s not until the darn thing is in the third draft that I start to get an inking of a title.

    The exception was EVERY OTHER MONDAY IS MURDER. I had that title to start with. Unfortunately, many friends told me it was either too cozy for a police procedural or made them think there was a serial killer in the book. Out it went.

    Love mining Ben Franklin for ideas. Talk about a quotable man!

    1. I kind of like that Book One and Book Two idea. Maybe I’ll use that for my new series.

  5. I agonize over titles. I am great if helping friends but for my own it is difficult.

    I had written three quarters of my first book before I came up with a title that would do. It eventually grew on me to the point that I loved it. That made it easy to name the next two and make them a set piece.

    My publisher doesn’t like the title. Ah, well. C’est la vie, right? At least it’s being published. 🙂

    1. It makes me feel so much better to know I am not alone in my title angst, Aimee. I’m not sure I can even help friends with titles. Yes, as long as you are being published, you are on the right track despite the title.

  6. Thanks for this look behind the curtain. Personally, I am amazed by titles, but I hate coming up with titles for my reviews. It’s why so many of my movie and TV Shiw reviews use quotes for the title. Then I don’t have to think.

    1. Makes sense to me. I guess I am lucky I don’t have to have a title for each chapter. That might end my writing.

  7. I struggle with my titles but can find the flow for others. Thank you for sharing your books and great titles. Your working title does shed some light on the truth of your story. Cozy? I’m working on this as well. Best to you on your latest work.

    1. Thank you for such kind comments. Franklin left such a body of sayings that I think I could keep going forever. What a thoughtful man!

  8. Thanks for visiting, Susan! I find that titles come easily or not at all. Half of my titles seemed to simply suggest themselves with no effort. The other half were Book 1, Book 2 etc… until there was some editorial assistance. I love yours!

    1. Thank you, Jessie. I so envy you for titles that come easily. I think I will talk to my editor and tell her that you get editorial assistance with this. Maybe that will put some pressure on her for titles in my new series. Thanks for that idea.

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